A fireside chat with Ross Seychell - CPO, Personio
MFG Co-lead, Sim Lamb, caught up with Ross on leadership, mentoring, and personal development.
On Thursday, 21st October we launched the MFG 2020/21 programme. After a fantastic presentation from The Network Lab, this year’s mentors, mentees, and sponsors spent the morning breaking the ice and getting to know each other. We were also incredibly grateful to be joined by Personio’s CPO, Ross Seychell.
Personio are doing exceptionally well. Only recently they raised a circa $270m round, valuing the company at $6.3bn, and topping 1,000 people too. That’s a fun ride in a short period of time! This isn’t Ross’ first rodeo either. Previously the CPO at Wise, he always seems to pick the winners. Ross helped to build that business into the incredible success story it is today. Beyond that, Ross is also a highly respected and trusted coach, advisor, and mentor to many. It was a delight to have him join us.
Who or what has been your biggest teacher?
I’ve certainly had a lot of great mentors over the years and have felt privileged to experience lots of guidance. In addition to that support, I’d say time has been my greatest teacher. It has helped me to appreciate and understand the learnings of my career and life: the choices you make, the mistakes, and what you learn along the way. As I've gotten older, reflecting on things that have happened in the past has helped me consider what I want to do differently in the future.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given in your career?
While working at Virgin Media with the CPO there, we were going through a big transformation within the company and the people function. She said, “Listen, what I've learned is: what got you here won't take you forward in the future”. Some of the things you’ve learned and experienced will, of course, help you but you have to be open to change and be willing to listen and learn. That’s true no matter what age you are or what stage you’re at in your career. That’s one that has always stuck with me.
Another great piece of advice came from Matt Briers, CFO at Wise - who, coincidentally, is a very wise man. I’d talk a lot and he’d listen and say, “Mate, don’t sweat the small stuff. There are so many big picture things we need to focus on in the long term.” And sometimes you can get pulled into the day to day, which can become all consuming. So, keep an eye on the bigger prize and just let some of the smaller things roll away.
As the successful leader you are, tell us what your biggest challenge is today and how you work through that?
It’s a long list. With the latest round of funding, success comes with new expectations internally and externally. That’s true for me personally and also within the executive team at Personio, where we’re considering how best to scale over the coming years. We’re learning lessons from other companies, while considering all the things that went well and not so well for them.
One great challenge is figuring out how to continue to empower your organisation and build ownership as you grow. When you do grow, the most tempting thing to do is put in controls, policies, and frameworks. These are the types of measures that help you scale. However, they may also end up diminishing autonomy and responsibility within the organisation. After which, people join and feel as though they’re just another cog in a machine. Like all companies, you really want to scale your culture and how you work as you grow. That’s quite existential and we’re trying to whittle it down into some more practical activities. We’re just trying to find that balance.
What do you think are the most important components to being a strong mentor?
When thinking back to my best mentors and what I try to emulate when I'm helping someone is being a great listener and questioner.
It sounds like common sense but as a mentor you have to be able to do these things. Some mentor-mentee relationships tend to be quite one-sided. In these types of relationships, there’s lots of information giving - which is important - but it's also imperative to listen and understand the career stage your mentee is at right now as well as what capacity they’ve got for any activities or exercises you want to do with them. That being said, the relationship should always be driven by the mentee. Your mentor is there to provide structure, guidance, and support - also to listen and understand.
Another crucial component is giving and asking for feedback. You’re only a great mentor if you’re actually hitting the mark and giving those who you support the best help. A great way to ensure you’re doing that is to ask for feedback.
Holding people accountable is a useful component. The relationship you’re nurturing is not one of hierarchy. Sure, mentors will naturally have a level of “I’ve been in these shoes before...” but they should be offering support instead of imposing their will. In addition, if your mentee says they’re going to do something, mentors should absolutely follow up with them.
The crucial component for me is to be open to expanding your network. I learn so much from other people and I do that best through my network. The last 18 months have highlighted the importance of empathy and humility. Opening up and offering help to others is key.
What about being a great mentee?
Be committed. Having a mentor who works for one of the great companies partnered with MFG can sound sexy and cool - all until the responsibilities of your day job and personal life start piling up. At the best of times, it’s hard to prioritise when confronted with work deadlines, family, a social life, and hobbies. So, it’s important to be aware of the commitments that you make as a mentee. It's almost like a contract that you need to deliver on with your mentor. Decide how often you’re going to meet, what the agenda’s going to be, consider and agree upon a way to offer and provide feedback. Do that up front and invest a bit of time in this contract, it will really help.
If the mentor is expected to be accountable, the mentee must be responsible. If you say you’re going to do something, then do it and if you can’t do it then be honest.
What mentor would you pick if you could choose anyone in the world?
Barack Obama: He’s an inspirational leader who navigated choppy waters. He’s also really calm and charismatic, and is someone who was faced with adversity and pushed through. I think he’d help you learn a lot about the art of negotiation and influencing people.
If you could win an Olympic medal for any sport, real or fake, what would it be?
What are you reading currently?
No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention (by Erin Meyer & Reed Hastings)
84K (by Claire North)
Last show that you binged and loved?
Motherland & Squid Game
Empathy. As I mentioned earlier, the last period has been tough for all of us. The one thing I've learned as a leader is that empathy has to come first and everything else follows.